An Important Absence
In Western art, portraiture has essentially been an elite endeavor, created for and by white men, with a stark absence of black subjects. Today, black men in our culture are often associated with false stereotypes or depicted only in negative terms: the mug shot of the violent criminal is the most blatant example. Correcting the absence of images of black subjects in portraiture has become a motivating impulse for Kehinde Wiley, who is inspired by the genre's rich history but also interested in interrogating its patriarchal, elite, and Eurocentric foundations. As he says: “I’m fascinated by the ways powerful white men have been depicted in the history of Western easel painting. It's a craft that has evolved into a vocabulary of signs that tells one that the subject is important. The absence of young black urban men in painting says something about our society” [“Kehinde Wiley,” Progressive Art Collection].
By exhibiting works in a museum context, Kehinde Wiley demonstrates a desire to deconstruct and criticize the received canon of portrait painting, even while seducing the viewer with his paintings' technical proficiency and aesthetic beauty.
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